Wednesday, June 10, 2009

China's Internal Politics on Climate Change

It’s apparent that China’s going to play a pivotal role in international efforts to mitigate climate change. Just based off the travel schedules of Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, James Sensenbrenner, and Todd Stern, US policymakers have gotten the message.

The key for US diplomats and policymakers is to create a US-China relationship that is a win-win for both economics and climate rather than thinking there has to be a tradeoff. If there’s a tradeoff, China will inevitably promote economic growth over the climate. Orvell Schell writes:

“What leaders in Beijing fear is that any strong Chinese effort to limit greenhouse emissions could compromise China’s economy, which could in turn lead to unemployment and social and political instability. So much of the Communist Party’s political legitimacy has come to be based on delivering economic success, that if the choice is between domestic instability and global warming, Party leaders will invariably lean towards the former.”

The Chinese government has faced and continues to face huge demographic and economic pressures. There is a large and aging population with a minimal social safety net supporting them. An estimated 125 million Chinese citizens are moving every year from the countryside to the cities looking for work. If China’s government had not met these challenges, it would have lost support from its citizens but they’ve met them so far with 30 years of unprecedented economic growth that.

However, economic growth, measured by statistics like GDP doesn’t constitute the sole basis for the Communist Party’s legitimacy. It also rests on environmental stability because numerical measurements of economic growth exclude how environmental catastrophes like polluted rivers and dirty air undermine the everyday quality of life in China. Satisfaction with the government rests not just on abstract measurements of growth but on how the government deals with concrete problems such as drought and dust storms.

China’s government appears to recognize this. They’re trying to remain in power for the long term and that means China has to grow sustainably. In order to do that, China’s government is using climate change as an opportunity to remake China’s economy. What’s going to be very interesting in the coming decades is if China’s government’s desire to clean up its environment and cut carbon emissions is going to lead to the kind of political liberalization Pelosi envisions, where she told the Chinese on her trip that “protecting the environment is a human rights issue”.

I’m sure that’s not how the Communist Party thinks of environmental protection but one wonders if that’s what Chinese citizens think. Now, would it be smart for US policymakers concerned with both human rights and climate change to start framing climate change in terms of human rights to put pressure on the Chinese government in the eyes of its citizens?

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